Gryla & the Yule Lads

The yule lads

Now that the hipsters have ruined Krampus for everyone (“About 20,800,000 results” in Google), I predict that the fad for Xmas 2016 will be all Gryla and her brood of Yule Lads: Sheep-Cote Clod, Gully Gawk, Stubby, Spoon Licker, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, Sausage Swiper, Window Peeper, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook, & Candle Beggar. Gryla is a child-eating ogress and the Yule Lads, her sons, each come on a different night (December 12-24) to cause mischief. The Lads seem pretty innocuous for trolls, but since most of them are stealing food in the winter in Scandinavia, when freezing and starvation would be very real dangers, their antics were probably pretty scary back in the day.

Anyway you have eleven days to prepare for their onslaught.

Gryla catching lunch

Dimmu Borgir, one hopes, is working yuletide concept album on them. (Dimmuborgir is supposedly the home of Gryla and her family.)

Published in: on December 2, 2016 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Two books by Sabine Baring-Gould

I have been enjoying some older nonfiction books lately and I’ve been meaning to write up quick reviews of two by Sabine Baring-Gould.  Baring-Gould was a Victorian writer who wrote dozens of books on folklore, in addition to novels, sermons & hymns (he was an Anglican priest), and so on.  A number of his books are still in print, and many others are available online as scans or text transcriptions at Project Gutenburg, Wikisource, and

Curious myths & legends of the middle ages

A fascinating, if dated, look at some myths and legends, some very well known and some very obscure. Baring-Gould tries to find traces of the legends in earlier myths and fragments, showing off his vast erudition. A few of his conclusions are rather bizarre (he infamously claims that Methodism is a revival of Druidism) and he makes a lot of speculation to help fill in the connections between possibly connected legends.

One example that really stood out was in his analysis of the story of the Bishop Hatto, who is eaten by rats. He finds many echoes of the theme in stories taking place earlier and later, and ultimately connects it to human sacrifice among the ancient Scandinavians: the Norse “might” have sacrificed people by breaking their backs and marooning them on rat-infested islands. Well certainly there were some odd methods of sacrificing people in the north but that’s a very specific and strange scenario to assume, lacking any accounts of such a practice!

But for the most part he is convincing. The themes and motifs he finds connecting medieval myths with earlier beliefs mostly seem solid, and he makes a good case for many of his claims about pagan survivals into Christian-era folklore.

Readers unfamiliar with 19th century scholarship will be taken aback by some of the turns of phrase (for example he uses the now loaded term “Aryan” for what we’d now call Indo-European, and “race” in place of “ethnicity” or “nationality”), but he has no more bias than you’d expect for a 19th century Englishman. That is, he has the usual anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic prejudices, but does not dwell on them. He also gives extended quotes of texts in Latin and other languages without translation, which was a common 19th century practice, but for the most part he provides English paraphrases instead.

I must admit that some chapters were a bit boring and I skimmed some of them, but overall the book is recommendable for the many obscure legends it throws light on.  I found a lot of inspiration for encounters, locations, and NPCs in D&D, and will probably post more on this book later.  In the meantime you can read it in its entirety here:

The book of were-wolves: being an account of a terrible superstition

This is probably the most famous of Sabine Baring-Gould’s many nonfiction books.  While many of his other books cover esoteric local folklore and Church history, it is no surprise that this one still attracts modern readers.  It is one of the first and still one of the best books on the topic, and is such a standard reference that many later books on werewolves and lycanthropy owe a great deal to his work.  In fact the Wikipedia article on werewolves appears, to me, to paraphrase a fair amount of Baring-Gould’s exposition on werewolves and lycanthropy in Scandinavian sagas as well as the paragraphs on werewolves and vlkodlak in Hungary and the Balkans.

Baring-Gould attempts at least three tasks: to summarize folklore and beliefs about werewolves and related phenomena; to collect specific cases from ancient, medieval, and modern histories; and to explain the origins of the beliefs and demythologize the superstition.   (It’s kind of surprising that feels the need to argue the point, but he published this book in 1865 and there were still records of werewolves in living memory at that time; indeed he recounts being warned against werewolves during his own travels in France.)

These tasks do not entirely determine the structure of the book — he also attempts to give the legends in chronological order, so that the first third of the book looks at linguistic/philological evidence to understand the legends, and also gives a fairly exhaustive report of instances of men and women assuming the shapes of animals in European literature as well as briefer accounts of similar stories from around the world.  He includes stories of physical transformations alongside stories of metempsychosis (the transmigration of the soul into another body) as well as legends where the transformation is only illusory.  Baring-Gould gives particular attention to the Scandinavian sagas and mythology, devoting two whole chapters on them.  I found a lot of interesting stuff there.

The next third of the book, covering the middle ages and more modern times, focuses on the details of how one becomes a werewolf, how they can be identified, and how the affliction might be cured.  Various legends of skin-changers, shape-shifters, and the like are mentioned, with a fair amount of detail on North American native legends, as well as a few legal/criminal cases in early modern times and the reports of witch-finders like Bodin.

The final third of the book is devoted to the “natural” causes of beliefs in lycanthropy, an inventive theory tying lycanthropy legends to legends of ogres and dragons and the meteorological origins of all three(!), and finally longer accounts of cannibalism and serial killing.  This book is also thought to be the first to articulate the idea that werewolf legends arose from incidents of serial murders.  (However Baring-Gould is writing at a time before “serial killers” were identified as a kind of pathological type, and he just sees sociopathy as part of a continuum of human cruelty and violence — we all have cruel, violent impulses and some people just act on the worst impulses while most others do not.  Maybe the fact that he was an Anglican priest led him to the view that all people are equally capable of sin and evil?)  Baring-Gould gives what he says is the first English account of the horrible crimes of Gilles of de Rais, expurgated of the most heinous details.  While later writers have sometimes attempted to exonerate Gilles de Rais, it is hard not to conclude that he was what we’d call a serial killer today; it is especially disturbing that the power, wealth, and prestige he wielded allowed him to carry out his crimes so openly for years.  More stories of cannibalism, grave-robbing, and murder are presented to give further credence to Baring-Gould’s theory that the werewolf legends were simply an attempt to explain the most horrible acts of men.

Throughout the book I found a lot that could fuel interesting encounters or villains in D&D (which is my main motivation for reading this stuff anyway) and maybe I’ll do a separate post or series of posts on that.  But sticking to book review mode, it’s easy to recommend this one very highly.  It’s a relatively quick read and does a great job of looking for rational bases for the werewolf legends, and summarizing the wide variety of myths and superstitions in a systematic manner.  You can read it here:

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Day of the giants

I’ve really been enjoying Lester Del Rey’s fiction lately.  He’s a great writer, with great characters and very original ideas.  “Day of the Giants” is a short novel, and is borderline fantasy/science fiction in that the fantasy elements are explained with intentionally vague pseudo-science, or at least the intimation that there is some sort of scientific explanation that the narrator simply doesn’t understand, although one might conclude the narrator’s rationalism simply deludes him into this.
In any event the book’s cover, with flying saucers prominently depicted in front of shadowy giants helps obscure whether this will be pure science fiction or science fantasy, and Del Rey is not terribly concerned about such distinctions.  Honestly I was expecting the Norse gods to be aliens or something, based on the cover, but was pleasantly surprised.

It is tempting to compare it to Poul Anderson’s Norse fantasies, although Anderson is much more faithful to the essential doom and gloom of Norse mythology.  Del Rey’s story is a very American re-imagining of the Norse myth of Ragnarok.

I call it an American version of the myth because Del Rey’s narrator struggles with pessimism and barbarism of the Norse mythos, and uses ingenuity and optimism to overturn the prophesies of doom.  It’s rather like stitching a happy ending onto the epic of Gilgamesh, and yet somehow it works.  It shouldn’t, of course.  It is a travesty.  But a fun one!

Del Rey’s vision of slightly demythologized Asgard (Yggdrasil is a copse of trees, not a single giant tree; the regenerating goats eaten in Valhalla are actually just a large herd;  and so on) is very appealing and would be a decent model of use in a D&D campaign where the gods are more human and interact with men.  An interesting “magic item” is introduced, which the protagonist uses very creatively, and shows that even a fairly “weak” device can be exploited to good effect.  The dwarves, giants, and a few other monsters are depicted in a fairly original way.  So there is some gameable stuff too.

Published in: on August 5, 2013 at 8:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Of Dwarves and Jews

“Daddy Grognard” recently posted a nice dwarf figure and added an intriguing excerpt from a letter by Tolkien mentioning that he thought of dwarves as being more like Jews than tiny Vikings or Scots.

I’ve seen some mention else where that the dwarvish language in Tolkien is very Semitic, despite their Scandinavian personal names (and the dwarves apparently don’t use their true names among outsiders anyway…), and also that dwarvish architecture, being huge and monolithic and with massive columns seems Assyrian or Semitic too.

Could the “model” for the dwarves be Jewish or Semitic? (as the model for the Rohirrim, say, was the Anglo-Saxons?) This puts quite a different, and offensive, spin on dwarvish tropes of beards, large noses, famous craftsmanship, secretiveness about their women, ancestral grudges, and love of battle and gold, doesn’t it?

Might the dwarf-elf enmity be a sign of elvish antisemitism?

Well, there is this quote from an interview, and this academic paper on Dwarves in The Hobbit and LOTR. The paper is actually very good, although the author does stretch things a little. The thesis is that the dwarves of The Hobbit are very different from the the dwarves of LOTR, and that to some extent JRRT was “correcting” his unconsciously antisemitic depiction of dwarves. Very interesting reading.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (14)  
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Thirty-odd odd Norse magic items

Back in high school, or possibly junior high, I started compiling a list of Norse mythology’s people, places, & things as I found them referred to in various books.  Sadly I stopped before I began reading Norse sagas and romances off and on a few years later, so the list is mostly what I found in a few encyclopedias (I think — I may have ripped off other sources, my notes are sketchy and filled with misspellings!)

The following is a list of magic items I thought I might incorporate into a Norse campaign using the much-maligned and possibly unplayable Fantasy Wargaming rules.


Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 11:37 am  Comments (6)  
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Lovecraft, Swords & Sorcery, & D&D

In college I stumbled across a book of letters between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.  I’d heard, I think, that Howard’s Hyboria was connected to the “Cthulhu mythos” (if that term is legitimate) but had no idea the two had so much in common, despite their fierce differences.  Anyway I was often puzzled about the inclusion of the Cthulhu mythos in the first printings of the AD&D Deities & Demigods, and the blanket endorsement of Lovecraft’s work  in the Dungeon Masters Guide.  What does D&D have to do with HPL?  How do a bunch of adventurers (usually loosely modeled on the Fellowship of the Ring) going into dungeons for gold and glory have anything to do with the eldritch terror, cosmic horrors, and existential angst of HPL?  The various monsters that owe something to the aliens of HPL are obvious enough.


Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 2:46 am  Comments (7)  
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Some more on worldbuilding

Poul Anderson rocked.  The broken sword, which was published just before Lord of the Rings, is, in my opinion, terribly underappreciated.  It’s a fairly short book, and certainly the most brutal of his works that I’ve read, and you should go read read it right away.

I saw this cover in a book of Boris Vallejo’s paintings long before I ever read the book and honestly I probably wouldn’t have read it based on the cover. I’m guessing Boris didn’t actually read it either. Although the cover does depict something that happens in the book, this really doesn’t capture the feel of the book at all. 

This week I stumbled onto an essay Anderson wrote in the 1970s, and hosted here. It’s called “On thud and blunder” and it is partly a critique of the laziness of many fantasy/ swords& sorcery writers, and partly some basic information you should consider when creating a fantastic world grounded in some reality.  A similar article at sci-fi/fantasy writing site asks a bunch of questions a budding fantasy author should consider when building a world.  I think either is great fodder for a DM too.  Good stuff.

Published in: on January 29, 2010 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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Christmas update

Despite having some kind of rotavirus/stomach flu ye olde flux & emesis* pass from my daughter, to my wife, to me in succession, we all managed to be healthy on Christmas Day, which was great. We alternate between my side and my wife’s side each year, and this year was with my side, so the first of the games I made went to my niece.  She is “that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books” (to use H.G. Wells memorable phrase). Actually she has long been interesting all things fantastic and fantasy-oriented, but I was afraid I may have gotten to her a bit to late, as she is just now approaching her teen years and, I feared, was ready to put away childish things. I turns out, not so much. (more…)

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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A couple of updates

I added my revised rules for the Heritage dungeon crawls to the Rules page, and the rules & maps for the dungeons to the mythology page.

If I should make any new maps, I will, based on my experiences, do the originals on 8×10″ panels to be assembled later!  Actually I have some ideas about creating sections that can be assembled in multiple configurations, like the old D&D “Dungeon Geomorphs.”

Oh, and the most awesome thing to report is that my 4-year old decided to make her own “D&D map”:

She saved a piece of cardboard (“Daddy, if you don’t recycle this I can make a D&D map”) and needed a little help painting it (“What color does black and red and yellow make? What color does green and blue and red make?”), and admitted “I don’t know how to play D&D” when she was done, but I’m encouraging her to make it up as she goes.  She said the unpainted square on the upper left is the start, so she has some idea it is like a board game, and put one of her toys on it.  We’ll see.  It will be nice if she has something to do with all of the dice she’s stolen from me!

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 2:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Finally finished the “gift” games!

As I mentioned last time, the boards were all finally in a finished state:

But noone can actually scan a board that big, so, although it killed me to do it…

Cut into scannable chunks, scanned, reassembled as the pdfs I put on Scribd, printed, touched up, laminated.

Happily I was able to salvage the originals into a usable form too, as I’d hoped.  I covered each section with clear shelf paper and then reassembled them with more shelf paper so that fold like game boards.  Unfortunately I’d cut one so assymetrically that it looks really bad folded up but all are serviceable. Edge on:

3/4 opened:Completely opened up:

And completely folded up again:

So anyway here is what a completed gift game is looking like:

That is the “Hall of the Frost Giant.”  Map, booklet (general rules and the specifics for this dungeon), two laminated sheets of tables, and two record sheets, each usable to keep track for at least two adventures, and case for the figures (they’re on the map in this shot).  The monsters are in the large oval feating hall room and the adventurers are in the hall to the left.


And lastly here is a shot of the figures in their boxes:

And the figures for the other three games:

Now that I’m ready to wrap them up, I’m a little excited that I can get back to painting figures for myself again….

Published in: Uncategorized on December 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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